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Members include: Billy Ficca, drums; Richard Lloyd, guitar; Tom Verlaine (born Tom Miller, c. 1950 in NJ), vocals and guitar; Fred Smith, bass. Former member: Richard Hell, bass.
Punk rock music began in New York City in the mid 1970s. It was then that bands like Television, the Ramones, Patti Smith, and the band that would later become Blondie, the Stilettoes, set the stage for a new kind of music. "On the nascent New York punk-rock circuit of the mid-1970s," wrote Kurt Loder in Esquire, "Television was a wondrous curiosity--a scragged-out Bowery quartet that enriched its witty punk-squak tunes with gorgeous, extended improvisations by two very distinct guitarists, Richard Lloyd and songwriter Tom Verlaine."
In late 1973 Tom Verlaine was walking through New York's Bowery section complaining to a friend about the difficulties of finding clubs in which to perform. Together they stumbled upon CBGB's and its owner Hilly Kristal. After a casual discussion, Kristal told Verlaine that his band should come by and audition. Until then the bar featured Irish folk music and was a biker bar a couple nights a week.
The band, consisting of Verlaine and Lloyd on guitars, Billy Ficca on drums, and Richard Hell on bass, placed some mimeographed posters around town and bought their own ads. But after only a month of playing one or two nights a week, other like-minded musicians began showing up. The Ramones were looking for a place to play, as was Patti Smith, and the Stilettoes.
Early punk music was not so much a rebellion, as a counter-revolution. "The first punks were not a new generation," wrote Bill Flanagan in Musician, "but the underbelly of the 60s generation who remembered the glory of their youth and wanted to reclaim rock from Pink Floyd, the Doobie Brothers, the Moody Blues--whoever they felt had blown it."
Many people erroneously think that punk rock began in England, but it was only an Englishman who took the New York look and sound back to England. Malcolm McLaren was managing the campy, glam band called New York Dolls in the mid-1970s. The members of Television wore ripped clothing because they didn't know how to sew, and McLaren was obsessed with their look. "It was very much like, 'Just play and I'll do everything else--you'll have a record out in six months, I guarantee it will be top ten,'" Verlaine recalled in Musician. Where Hell liked the idea, neither Lloyd nor Verlaine trusted McLaren; they told him "no thanks." McLaren went back to England, and within nine months the Sex Pistols surfaced on the London scene, sporting Richard Hell's hairdo and Television's ripped-up look.
In 1974 producer Brian Eno helped record a Television demo. Before long, an A & R (artists and repertory) person at Island Records was calling it half of an album. But none of the band liked the production style of the demo, and asked to begin again with a different producer. Around this time Richard Hell left Television due to friction among the members and formed the Voidoids. When the Stilettoes broke up, Verlaine invited their bass player, Fred Smith to join Television.
Meanwhile, Sire records was offering record deals to many artists. Patti Smith was the first of CBGB's acts to sign with a label, releasing her ground-breaking album Horses on Arista in 1975. Television released a single "Little Johnny Jewel" in 1975, but instead of accepting a deal with Sire, as the Ramones and the Talking Heads did, Television decided to wait for a better deal.
Finally, in 1977, Elektra records released Television's Marquee Moon, which is considered a landmark album. Rolling Stone's David Fricke wrote, "the stunning ice-blue guitarchitecture and defiant spirit of free-jamming wanderlust on Television's debut album ... blew wide holes through cream-puff AOR rock and the already calcifying primitivism of punk." In Spin, Andrew Schwartz called Marquee Moon "Television's one uncontestable masterpiece ... the album's ingeniously orchestrated guitar parts and stark fables of spiritual transcendence amid urban decay left marks still evident in the music of [today's bands] U2, Sonic Youth, and Ride, to name a few."
Although Television is always mentioned among the first punkers who vastly influenced British punk and subsequent "alternative" subgenres, their sound was actually much different from other bands. As James Rotondi wrote in Guitar Player, "Television's improvisational bent and poetic streak set them off from most of their contemporaries." Schwartz felt that "Television plays rock'n'roll, not as high-speed eighth-notes or monolithic bar chords, but as a series of improvisations by a deft, powerful Smith-Ficca rhythm section and two virtuoso guitarists, Verlaine and Lloyd."
As a songwriter, Verlaine has certainly managed to set the band apart from their contemporaries. His lyrics usually begin as odd narrative tales that eventually lose any discernible story line. Most of his influences came from flying saucer songs on his childhood radio. Schwartz asserted that "Verlaine draws less from [early rocker] Chuck Berry than from 50s films and 19th-century poets such as Arthur Rimbaud. If there was anger and defiance in the music, it was more in the spirit of [poet] Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" than of teenage rebellion." Pulse! noted that Television's "fat-free twin guitar attack and sparse lyrics helped pave the way for punk rock's economy."
Television's 1978 follow-up album, Adventure, paled by comparison to their debut, although it too impressed critics. They did not record a third album until 1992. This delay caused people to believe that the band had broken up and later made a comeback, but Television insisted they'd just been on hiatus for 13 years. It was their live performances, however, and not their albums, that made them legendary. They were performances considered rarely equaled in rock. Though they released only two official albums--neither of which sold even 150,000 copies--at least 16 bootleg releases have surfaced since.
All four members worked on various projects during their "sabbatical." Verlaine regularly received critical kudos for his solo works. And although not as prolific as Verlaine, Lloyd was also critically lauded for his solo efforts, as well as for his lead guitar work with singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet, and with X's leadman John Doe on his side projects.
The sparks that flew on stage between Lloyd and Verlaine were considered the same sparks that broke up the band. But their differences were not apparent on 1992's Television. Spin's Celia Farber called Television "a damned good, maybe even great, record." Some critics had mixed feelings, but nobody could deny that Television still had their gifts. Surprisingly, reviewers did not romanticize the comeback, but evaluated it with a careful ear. In Esquire Loder said that "these gleaming tapestries of (for the most part) straight-through-the-amp Fender guitar sound--now mellowed somewhat, but more compelling than ever--are one of art-rock's richer rewards."
As of the mid-1990s Television's status was unclear. Capital Records had produced Television as a one off. Although their reunion tour was well received, the members did not have plans of giving up their solo work. Regardless of Television's plans, as Guitar Player proclaimed, "for their balance of subtly shaped tones, their intertwining of rich melodies, their dynamics, and their jagged rhythmic interplay, they are as crucial to modern guitar as any band of the past 20 years."
by Joanna Rubiner
Band formed in 1973 in New York City. Began playing at the now-legendary CBGB, 1973; released first single "Little Johnny Jewel", 1975; first album Marquee Moon, 1977; disbanded, 1979; reunited for tour and the album Television, 1992.
- Selective Works
- Marquee Moon, Elektra Records, 1977.
- Adventure, Elektra Records, 1978.
- The Blow Up, ROIR CD, 1978.
- Television, Capital Records, 1992.
- Verlaine's solo albums Flashlight, IRS Records.
- Words From the Front, Warner Bros.
- Warm and Cool, Rykodisc, 1992.
- Lloyd's solo albums Field of Fire, Moving Target, 1985.
- Real Time, Celluloid, 1987.
- Esquire, January 1993.
- Guitar Player, January 1993.
- Metro Times, October 21, 1992; March 3, 1993.
- Musician, September 1992; June 1995.
- Pulse!, September 1992; November 1992.
- Rolling Stone, October 29, 1992; January 7, 1993.
- Spin, November 1992; January 1993.
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